learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties


The World of Chinese - - Tea Leaves - – ERNESTINA ZHU (朱欣怡) AND H.L.

“This app has too many users, we’re no longer op­er­at­ing it in China”—said no app devel­oper ever; ex­cept, it is ru­mored, Wei Li­hua, the founder of pop­u­lar lan­guage­ex­change app Hel­lotalk.

The source of Wei’s state­ment, which was cir­cu­lated by sev­eral blog­gers, re­mains un­clear. The clos­est is an in­ter­view with Sohu blog Edu Talk in late 2016, when Wei de­clared his team was “no longer mar­ket­ing the app do­mes­ti­cally” be­cause their Chi­nese user base, about 25 per­cent of the app’s then 4 mil­lion users, far out­stripped the overseas de­mand for Man­darin ex­change part­ners. That was only the be­gin­nings of the trou­bles for the overseas-ed­u­cated, Hong Kong-chi­nese en­tre­pre­neur.

Founded in 2012, Hel­lotalk is es­sen­tially a mo­bile up­date to the old “pen­pal” con­cept. Be­liev­ing that con­vers­ing about one’s cul­ture and in­ter­ests with fel­low stu­dents is more con­ducive to lan­guage learn­ing than the tra­di­tional class­room, the apps matches users based on their na­tive and tar­get-lan­guage set­tings and in­ter­ests. In the app, users can pri­vately mes­sage each an­other in 160 lan­guages, helped by fea­tures such as trans­la­tion and sen­tence correction. They can also take part in group chats and make pub­lic broad­casts (or just advertise for more part­ners) in a “Mo­ments”-type fea­ture. Com­peti­tors Tan­dem and Hello Pal also al­low part­ners to play mo­bile games to­gether or share voice mes­sages us­ing pro­fes­sion­ally recorded phrase­books, re­spec­tively.

Hel­lotalk now claims to have 7 mil­lion users in more

than 200 coun­tries, but still hasn’t seemed to cracked the code of be­ing both “guerilla” and “glob­al­ized” at the same time. In his Edu Talk in­ter­view, Wei char­ac­ter­ized his project as an “enor­mous early-stage in­vest­ment” and “a mini-wechat that’s more com­pli­cated than Wechat.” Not only does the soft­ware need to sup­port trans­la­tion, translit­er­a­tion, correction, read­ing aloud, and other func­tions for each lan­guage, but the com­pany re­quires a suite of knowl­edge­able staff or lo­cal part­ners for each for­eign mar­ket.

Then there are the se­cu­rity is­sues: On the ded­i­cated Baidu Fo­rums of all three ma­jor apps, a plu­ral­ity of re­cent posts have warned against scam­mers and pick-up artists who seem to treat the apps as more global—and less scru­ti­nized—ver­sions of Tinder. Sex­ual ha­rass­ment is­sues threaten to de­rail Hel­lotalk’s orig­i­nal mis­sion of pro­mot­ing cul­tural ex­change and friend­ships, along with lan­guage prac­tice: Ha­rass­ment re­ports on Baidu are meat and drink to na­tion­al­is­tic ne­ti­zens who sim­ply re­ply,“the app has killed my good opin­ion of for­eign­ers.”

“[Lan­guage ex­change] apps do in­flu­ence a lot of ed­u­ca­tion on for­eign lan­guages study, but the re­la­tion­ship de­pends on [the user’s] net­work, and they won’t be the trend of study­ing lan­guages,” an ESL teacher, John, tells TWOC. In­deed, Wei told Edu Talk that Hel­lotalk’s prod­uct was only 35 per­cent com­plete, with the other 65 per­cent to con­sist of on­line cour­ses from for­eign teach­ers, live broad­casts, and a paid Q&A plat­form. In 2017, Ber­lin­based Tan­dem of­fi­cially launched with a busi­ness model of sell­ing on­line tu­tor­ing ser­vices to lan­guage-ex­change users—“en­hance your prac­tice,” urges Tan­dem’s App Store de­scrip­tion. “Reach your lan­guage goals at light­speed!”

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